Tackling Nitrogen Pollution

EDF is doing a great deal of work in partnership with farmers around the country to develop solutions to nitrogen pollution. Working with the Iowa Soybean Association, we created a rapidly growing initiative that helps farmers use nitrogen much more efficiently.

Nitrogen
Infographic: How to Revive America’s Rivers and Agriculture. View full size »

We’ve partnered with almost 800 farmers in Iowa, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia, to help them assess the amount of nitrogen they need to use—and to reduce run-off of excess fertilizers. The program has recently expanded to Minnesota, Missouri, and Illinois. More targeted applications save the farmers money—the price of fertilizers having doubled over the last decade.

“The On-Farm Network delivers real benefits for farmers and the environment,” says EDF’s Deputy Director of the Center for Conservation Incentives, Suzy Friedman. “With so many U.S. watersheds suffering from nitrogen runoff, we need programs like this to align environmental goals with farmers’ economic interests.”

EDF is also working to help farmers understand the value of buffer zones between their fields and waterways. Rather than mow down to a river’s edge, farmers can plant trees, shrubs and grasses, whose roots will absorb nitrogen before it drains into the water. Wetlands restoration is critical to this effort as well. EDF helped persuade Congress to establish several U.S. Department of Agriculture programs that reward farmers for planting riparian buffers rather than crops. The vivid, cheerful renewal of bird and animal life at the water’s edge is its own reward.

Stop All Ocean Abuse!

We are killing our oceans. As I write, barrels of oil are still gushing from the broken BP well into Gulf of Mexico waters. The blog commentariat is in gusher mode too; most people are expressing heartfelt pain for the toll this environmental disaster is taking. But some seem to think the problem isn’t too severe. The ocean is vast, they say, and what is pouring into it from below its floor is by comparison tiny. One person compared it to a spoonful of oil in a swimming pool.

This is absurd. But it brings up an interesting point about our attitude towards the ocean. We think it is so large as to seem limitless. On old maps the oceans stretch to the horizon, the limit of the knowable, whereupon people fall off the edge of the Earth. We know better now, but somewhere deep inside us the vestiges of that mythology live on.

We’re in danger of forgetting what oceans used to be like and lowering our standards for what constitutes a healthy ocean.

That’s partly because we stand in awe before something so vast; it also reflects, I suspect, a subconscious desire to rationalize our careless ways. It is nearly impossible for most of us to believe that we are having catastrophic effects on our oceans—indeed, most of us are probably unaware of it. Three things are killing the oceans, explains Professor Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego: overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

I’ve written before about acidification, how carbon emissions have accomplished the unthinkable by changing the ocean waters’ chemistry, imperiling valuable coral reefs and other forms of sea life. That’s only part of the picture.

Let’s take it at the local level. Are our waters pristine, anywhere? Here in Rhode Island, we are now pounded with increasingly common heavy rainfall that causes rapid flooding of rivers. During these storms, our sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed, and when they flood, fecal matter pours into rivers and flows into the ocean. Beaches are closed, from time to time, because of high bacterial counts in the water. This happens up and down the East and West coasts.

Let’s assume we can’t swim, but we can still walk the beach. This is one of my favorite things to do, at any time of the day or the year. I like low tide best, when I can catch a glimpse of that mysterious intertidal zone, and watch the creatures in the little pools that collect around the granite outcroppings characteristic of this area. These days, I no longer walk empty-handed, as I once did, because it isn’t the plovers that are catching my eye. It is the plastic.

Marine debris on the beach
Plastic trash and debris abound in the ocean and litter our beaches.
Photo: Ocean Conservancy

All year round, I fill trash bags with the detritus of human activity, from soda cans to sneakers to plastic baggies to abandoned toys; it is worse in the summer. The cigarette butts drive me crazy; has the beach become one big ashtray?

Magnify what’s happening on my beach to a global scale and you get the Texas-sized patch of plastic debris that is swirling around in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five major oceanic gyres. No one can say with certainty how large this trash patch is—it could be as large as the continental U.S.—because the plastic breaks down into particles that are suspended in the water below the surface. But one thing is certain: The plastic in the ocean—which will never biodegrade—is wreaking havoc on wildlife.

We don’t seem to understand—or appreciate—the catastrophic effects of such cumulative pollution. If someone drove a dump truck to the beach and unloaded a pile of trash onto the sand, beachgoers would be furious. They would do what they could to stop it. Yet they are heedless when their neighbors leave trash, bit by bit, as if it will simply disappear into the blue beyond. We don’t perceive trouble that creeps over us slowly the same way we do trouble that hits with an immediate force. But perhaps epic disasters like the BP gusher can focus attention on the subject of ocean abuse.

As Jackson describes it, we succumb to “shifting baselines syndrome”; we don’t pay close attention to slow change, even if it is chronic. Think of it in a personal way: if I gain two pounds every year, I might say (as I have) to my doctor, well, I’m only two pounds heavier than I was last year, so that’s pretty good. But if I shift my baseline, and look at my weight now compared to fifteen years ago, the picture isn’t so healthy.

Our baselines have been shifting with regard to our oceans. We are in danger of forgetting what they used to be like, lowering our standards for what is an acceptable measurement of health. Overfishing is, according to Jackson, “the most important alteration to oceans in the past millennium.” Because our supermarkets are full of fish, we assume ocean life is as abundant as ever—even while it is deteriorating.

Take lobsters. In the early 1800s, they were so abundant that they were used as bait and fertilizer. They were caught by hand during low tide along our rocky shores. In Rhode Island, colonial law protected prisoners and servants by limiting the number of times a week they could be served lobster. By the end of World War II, lobsters were a delicacy. In the last ten years, debate has raged among lobstermen about whether the lobster fisheries are in danger—because they are comparing catches from last year to catches from five years ago. But if we step back, and compare catches to one hundred years ago, there is no question that the lobster population is crashing.

There is something seductive about the dark, opaque surface of ocean water; it is mesmerizing. Many of us have felt the lulling solace of the eternal movement of waves and tides. Because we can’t see through the ocean’s surface, we irrationally operate with the assumption that the ocean can overcome anything.

Kids at the Beach
Now is the time to decide what sort of ocean we want to leave for the generations that succeed us.

We know better, intellectually: we know, for instance, that BP was drilling 1 mile deep. Underwater, that seems an enormous distance because we don’t have a human experience of such depth the way we do, say, of a one-mile walk, or a seven-mile run. (The ocean’s deepest point is seven miles.) No one can go such a distance underwater unaided and survive. In some atavistic way, one mile in the ocean seems far, far deeper than ten miles on land.

The impossibility of ever seeing this undersea world makes it seem as remote and untouchable as the surface of the moon—so how could we possibly have an impact on it? But we have—for the worse. The only possible good that could come of the terrible BP-Gulf Gusher is that as a nation we realize what a mess we are making of our world, our home. The oceans cannot take infinite abuse. But if we protect them, they will provide infinite food, inspiration, refreshment, and wonder for generations to come.

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Why the BP Blowout Won’t Be the Last Tragedy in the Gulf of Mexico

The BP Gulf Oil Gusher has shown the whole world the nightmarish risks of deep sea drilling. But there is another, older, story of environmental destruction in the Mississippi River Delta wetlands—and it, too, is related to offshore drilling. This tragedy will continue long after BP’s well is shut down, and it’s another accident just waiting to happen.

As long as we demand oil,
oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it.

The first offshore well was drilled in fourteen feet of water off the coast of Calcasieu Parish, Louisiana in 1937. In the decades that followed, a dense infrastructure was thrown up to support a booming offshore oil business—which was rapidly moving into ever-greater depths. Some 30,000 to 40,000 miles of underwater pipeline were laid—maps show a dense thicket of infrastructure—and navigational canals were cut through the wetlands for shipping. Most of these pipelines and canals that service the roughly 4,000 active wells in the Gulf were built long before environmental laws were passed and agencies were created to protect the wetlands. This oil infrastructure has cost Louisiana dearly, and it will threaten the Gulf coast for years to come.

Since the early 1900s, Louisiana has lost 2,300 square miles of wetlands to the sea, an area roughly the size of Delaware. Paul Harrison, a senior director in EDF’s Ecosystems program, explains several causes of the state’s vulnerability.

First, the Mississippi River has been separated from the wetlands by the levees and jetties that were built to keep shipping channels open. Fresh river water, carrying its rich load of sediment and nutrients, no longer reaches and replenishes the wetlands. Along with the infrastructure that supports the offshore drilling industry, this has severely compromised the resilience of the Delta ecosystem.

Louisiana's Shrinking Coastline
Louisiana’s Shrinking Coastline
Since 1930, 1.2 million acres of coastal wetlands have been lost. (Maps: Courtesy Windell Curole, SLLD/Joe Suhayda, LWRRI)

Second, the straight, wide industrial canals have disrupted the hydrology—the water flow—of the wetlands. Normally, bayous are full of small, winding channels that keep saltwater from running inland. The manmade canals, in contrast, serve as conduits for seawater, which kills the freshwater marsh vegetation that holds the land together, leaving it to wash away with the tides.

Third, the Geophysical Research Letters will soon publish a paper revealing that the pipeline along the seafloor of the Gulf of Mexico, much of it old and decaying, is extremely vulnerable to hurricane-induced currents. In 2004, during Hurricane Ivan, sensors placed on the ocean floor showed that underwater currents put considerable stress on the oil infrastructure. More hurricane-resistant design of this infrastructure is needed before the next crisis erupts.

And the last, and largest, problem for the Mississippi River Delta wetlands is global warming. In low-lying places like Louisiana, you have to consider relative sea level rise. Because the land is subsiding at the same time that the ocean is rising, Louisiana faces the most severe consequences of climate change.

Lance Nacio’s story vividly illustrates the impact of land subsidence in the Delta. For more than a century, his family has owned a couple of thousand acres of freshwater marshland, about thirty to forty miles inland, in Lafourche Parish, Louisiana. His grandparents lived off the land—they were self-sufficient. They raised cattle for food, grew crops and fished, hunted duck commercially, and trapped animals like nutria, muskrat, otter and mink to sell to furriers. They carved dugout canoes out of large old felled trees. Photographs from the forties and fifties show a land so fertile that, as Nacio says “it breaks your heart to see it, compared to how it looks now.”

This beautiful land is rapidly disappearing. Since Nacio inherited it 21 years ago, he figures about 30% has vanished underwater. As saltwater rushes into his marshes, the freshwater grasses die off and grasses that thrive in saltwater haven’t grown in fast enough to stop the land from eroding. His land was once protected by barrier islands further south in the Gulf, but they have subsided, leaving him increasingly vulnerable. Now his land is also subsiding into the water, literally sinking from sight.


Lance Nacio recounts decades of wetlands loss that has taken his land and put the region at even greater risk of oil spill damage.

Nacio, who is 39 years old, has tried to adapt. In 1998, when roughly 60% of his land became water, he started running a commercial shrimp boat to make a living. Since the BP Blowout, Nacio can no longer fish. “We’ve been shut down for a more than a month here,” he says. “The oil has contaminated the fishing areas.”

It is hard to imagine how families like Lance Nacio’s can survive. The BP disaster is already creating severe economic hardship for everyone whose livelihood depends on these oil-soaked Gulf waters. But even after the Gusher is capped, the tens of thousands of miles of pipeline and canals will remain. The next Gulf tragedy waits its turn. That’s why the urgent work of EDF and its allies to replenish and strengthen the wetlands that nourish and protect the Gulf Coast should become America’s priority.

This magical, rich, fertile, wild and abundant land must be thought of as a national treasure. Losing it would leave us all that much poorer.

But there is a larger issue that we Americans must confront. Regardless of our collective fury over the environmental nightmare in the Gulf, as long as we demand oil, oil companies will venture into ever-trickier waters to find it. Now is the time to support energy and climate legislation that will shift our economy to safer energy sources. We can be energy-addicted. We cannot afford to be addicted to filthy fossil fuels.

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Take action! Tell President Obama and Congress to hold oil companies accountable for the full extent of their pollution and unleash our clean energy future.

Connect the Dots: Oil in the Gulf and Floods in Tennessee

I went to Franklin, Tennessee for a visit that was supposed to end last Saturday, but I was marooned by flooding from the unprecedented deluge that pummeled this part of the country over the weekend. We got more than 15 inches in two days—a record high. The rain came stunningly fast and furious, buckets of water pouring down from the heavens. Within hours, dry creek beds became raging rivers. As a friend and I were driving from downtown Nashville at the start of the storm, it began to dawn on us that things were much worse than the prediction of “severe thunderstorms” might indicate.

Will we learn from the terrible disaster in the Gulf?

Winds were gusting wildly, trees were toppling across roads, water was spilling over banks, asphalt was crumbling, and cars around us were stalled. We got to a dip in one street and saw a woman pacing back and forth, her hands folded in prayer in front of her face. A man just ahead of us had been told not to drive through the water spilling across the road, she said, but he had ignored the warning. “His car washed away. He’s hangin’ in the top of a tree, hangin’ on for dear life,” she said. “Pray for him. Please.”

I don’t know if he was rescued, or if he became one of the 24 people who died in Tennessee, Kentucky and Mississippi when rivers flashed through towns, washed away cars, houses and commercial buildings, and buckled bridges. When I wasn’t watching the downpour or warily eying the creek behind my friends’ house, I was following the disaster unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. Within a week, what had been described by BP as a containable spill coming from the sinking Deepwater Horizon rig had become three “leaks”—a maddening description.

May 4th satellite image of the Gulf Coast oil spill. Source: NASA

What’s going on cannot possibly be called a leak, nor can it be called a spill. Leaks are gradual and spills imply the emptying of a container. Instead, what we have are underwater geysers of oil that are spewing rust-colored crude; and there is no known end to the supply. As of Monday, BP estimated that 210,000 gallons a day—five times the company’s original projection—were spilling into the Gulf’s tricky, frigid waters. The oil slick on the surface covers more than 1,800 square miles and Interior Department officials are estimating it may take 90 days to stop the flow if BP has to drill a “relief” well to intersect and cap the out-of-control well.

The weather has not been cooperating with containment efforts, which were slow off the mark. As of Wednesday, BP said 100 miles of floating booms had been laid out to keep the oil from spreading, but they were severely compromised, and outright destroyed in places, by winds and waves. Eighty percent of the booms protecting Alabama’s coast are damaged. Meanwhile, crews are spraying tens of thousands of gallons of chemical dispersants onto the oil to break it up into droplets that can sink to the bottom. We can only guess what havoc this will wreak on the Gulf floor; the chemical dispersants are of “low toxicity”—in other words, some toxicity—and have never been used before in such large quantities. The only sure thing is that the damage won’t be visible to the public eye.

The harm will be more visible, and devastating, to the fishermen whose livelihoods depend on Gulf waters. They’ve been called off their boats at the start of the season for many valuable species of fish, while NOAA tests sea life for contamination. What’s heartbreaking is that these are the very fishermen who recently responded to depleted stocks by becoming leaders in adopting new systems to manage their catch, with EDF’s help. Red snapper, grouper and tilefish have been coming back—and the fishermen have benefited economically. The fishermen themselves have become stewards of the Gulf. Unfortunately, not everyone working in the Gulf has been as conscientious.

Gulf life cannot compete against an enormous oil spill. When the oil reaches the wetlands, it can coat, suffocate and kill the grasses whose web of roots holds the marshes in place. Then all that will be left is mud, which will simply sink into the seawater.  Marshes buffer the region from storm surges—unless the marshes are so depleted that they wash away. Normally, the marshlands would naturally replenish themselves with sediment that washes down the Mississippi River—except that sediment has been channeled away by levees built over the years to encourage sparse barge traffic. The costs of compromising these natural storm barriers became tragically evident during Hurricane Katrina. So today, barrier islands are sinking and disappearing into the Mississippi River Delta: nearly 25 square miles of critically important wetlands disappear every year.


EDF staff on the ground in Louisiana
to see the oil spill impact on the wetlands and local fishermen.

Sadly, the oil is gushing into the Gulf during peak nesting season: This area is prime breeding ground for countless sea turtles and birds such as the American oystercatcher, who lay their eggs in the sand. Millions of dollars, and countless years of work by EDF and other organizations have been poured, heart and soul, into restoring those vital but now imperiled coastal lands—for the sake of wildlife, and human life. Once again, we are reminded that we are dependent on one another. All that work may be washed away by gushing oil.

Meanwhile, in the peculiar ecosystem that is the political world of Washington DC, the fate of months of negotiations over a bipartisan clean energy/climate/jobs bill hangs in the balance. One of the central compromises made in the hope of the bill’s safe passage was the significant expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling. Now, that grand bargain is jeopardy.

May 5th photo of Nashville after the flood. Photo: Les DeFoor

What a strange and terrible confluence of events! I believe the disasters of this week will prove to be of profound significance. People in Tennessee are saying that they didn’t have a 100- year flood; they had a 250- year flood. What does that really mean?  Now that the flood has happened, it won’t happen again in their lifetimes? Is that wishful thinking?

Let’s remember that climate scientists predict that one effect of global warming will be more extreme weather patterns: sudden severe flooding in some areas, and intense droughts in others. In other words: global weirding. I have a feeling there’s worse to come. Nature is unpredictable, as we can see from the constantly changing direction of the Gulf gusher.

It is way past time to connect the dots. Responsible climate scientists have been unequivocal: the burning of fossil fuels has contributed significantly to global warming. And global warming is dangerous. Then take into consideration the significant degradation we have visited upon our earth in harvesting those fossil fuels, with sloppy, irresponsible, and perhaps even cynical greed.  The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Gulf rig lacked a $500,000 remote control shut-off switch required by other major oil-producing nations as last-resort protection against underwater spills.

Humankind has been able to alter the course of something as unfathomably large as the climate. But we’re reminded, over and over again, that plain old weather can—and will—undo humankind.

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Take action! Tell the Senate we must transition to clean energy with a strong climate and energy bill.

Walmart Redux: Citizens and Consumers

I wouldn’t normally write about the same subject twice in a row, but the impassioned responses to last month’s column on Walmart’s move to cut carbon emissions from their supply chain made me want to give it another think. Thanks to all of you who took the time to be considerate, whether or not we agree. And a shout out to the poet!

The comments, many angry or hurt, suggest that we here at EDF haven’t done a good enough job of explaining what we do, why, and who pays for it.

Reducing personal consumption won’t by itself solve global warming

Let’s start with the premise that when it comes to solving the climate crisis, simply reducing personal consumption is not enough. The problem is much too large, and developing far too rapidly. Plus, many people don’t even yet feel enough concern about climate change to motivate them to make changes.

Consider this: What if, instead of committing itself to reducing carbon emissions, Walmart had simply said: “Who cares about global warming? We don’t believe in it. We don’t want to revamp anything until regulations force change.” Ask yourself: Would we be better off?

This gets me to the work of EDF–harnessing markets to protect the environment by “making it profitable to put out less pollution” as president Fred Krupp says. EDF has been a pioneer and leader in working strategically with companies for 20 years. This is why I was drawn to their work in the first place; it manages the nifty trick of being idealistic, ambitious and pragmatic. EDF is dedicated to solving what I think of as the defining crisis of our century: mitigating pollution that began with the industrial revolution, and has been magnified by the post World War II chemical revolution.

EDF is interested working with market leaders–companies whose decisions affect whole economic sectors. So yes, EDF does support free enterprise, or capitalism. No, EDF is not against all consumption. Yes, EDF has a track record of protecting the environment. And most emphatically NO–EDF does not take money from its corporate partners. The environment is their only client. EDF is funded by generous individuals and foundations.

Remember these? You no longer see Styrofoam containers at most fast food restaurants because EDF worked with market-leader McDonald’s to cut waste.

It’s now 20 years since EDF first worked with McDonald’s to reduce its packaging waste by 150,000 tons. This was followed by a highly successful project with McDonald’s to curb the use of human antibiotics in animal agriculture. Since then EDF has worked with Whole Foods and Wegman’s to clean up the shrimp farming industry; it has worked with Walmart to cut waste; it has worked with FedEx to develop hybrid delivery trucks, and in the process transformed the entire delivery industry. The list goes on.

“Markets by themselves, much like currents in a river, are neither good nor bad,” says Gernot Wagner, an EDF economist who sees himself as a “pragmatic” optimist. “Properly guided, they can be a force for good. Entrepreneurs see environmental challenges as opportunities rather than hindrances.”

It is interesting how many readers of last month’s column frame their environmentalism as a choice between consuming or not consuming, forgetting, it seems, that we have to define ourselves first as citizens, not as consumers. Of course, every living creature consumes. The needless, mindless consumption that wastes precious resources, pollutes and even kills, is another matter.

LandfillTo change our throwaway culture, we must be citizens first, then consumers.Town Hall

All of us can be more watchful of our habits, without necessarily giving up on vacations, or raspberries in February. Every day scientists learn more about the consequences of our choices, whether in the metals in our fish, the emissions from our cars, the chemicals in our soaps, the microwave radiation from our cell phones or the fertilizers on our fields. Every day, it seems, we learn something more that inspires us to make adjustments in our consumption.

Personal action, however, can be expensive. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to buy a new car. Not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to install new geothermal or solar systems; not everyone can immediately, or ever, afford to retrofit their houses with new insulation. Until the prices for many “green” items come way down, they will not be widely adopted. That does not mean we ought to shoulder a massive guilt trip–that would be inappropriate, and counterproductive. The burden of responsibility has to be on us collectively–on our governments, and our corporations, those entities that have the largest impact on our lives.

It is our job, as consumers, to decide how to spend our money. It is our job, as citizens, to decide how to spend our energy. Speak out, lobby, protest, persuade, agitate, march, sit-in, write, sing, or dance. Do what you can. I believe we should be angry, and that our voices should be harnessed to demand better leadership from our elected and appointed officials–and our media.

Why is it that as the effects of global warming intensify, polls show that fewer people feel it is of significant concern? Those of us whose job it is to communicate the findings of scientific research have only ourselves to blame.

People often ask me how I feel about “preaching to the converted” in this column. I think we can see in the wide-ranging responses to Walmart’s decision to cut emissions that there is no consensus among environmentalists–much less the general public–about how to move forward. There is no such thing as “the converted.” Anyway, I have an aversion to that phrase, as it implies faith, as does the idea of “belief” in climate change, and faith and belief are not the appropriate response to peer-reviewed scientific data. Simple learning and understanding will suffice, as will putting out accurate, verifiable data to the contrary. So far there isn’t any sound science behind the claim that global warming doesn’t exist.

It is every citizen’s job to get smart. You don’t have to become a climate scientist and reanalyze data, necessarily–just as you don’t have to become a cell biologist to accept a doctor’s recommendations. Read up on the science, learn the facts, and stop mumbling politely when someone tells you that what you see all around you during these “extreme weather events” as we now call them (as though they were some form of sport), isn’t really happening.

Shop at Walmart or shop at the bodega on the corner, but make sure that’s not the only way you are putting your money where your mouth is.

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Take action! Exercise your voice as a citizen and tell the Senate to cap the pollution causing global warming.

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